Harvest Season Riding
By Lora Goerlich
Rich earthy scents, brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red leaves drifting aimlessly in the crisp air, big buck sightings on the trail, and the absence of blood sucking insects. The blessings of cool weather riding have finally arrived… there is no better time of the year to enjoy a trail ride. Traditionally, late September marks the beginning of hunting season in most states. Since many public equestrian trails share space with hunters, riders need to be keenly aware of what species are hunted, what methods are permitted and the measures they can take to keep themselves and their horses safe while not interfering with hunters. Mindful recreational trail riders and ethical hunters can safely coexist.
What is in season? Hunting categories can include big game, small game, fur bearers, waterfowl, wild turkey, and upland game birds. Each has a designated season which might overlap with another. Within each category and season there might be different, legal harvest methods.
Individual states establish their own rules regarding season length, permitted species and how they can be taken. Daily bag limits and regulations might change based on prior year’s harvest numbers combined with current estimated wildlife populations. Unfortunately, there are no rules that apply uniformly from state to state. Additionally, autumn and winter are not the only seasons hunting is permitted - many states allow the harvesting of certain animals all year round. These animals have most often been deemed “nuisance animals” and could include coyote, feral swine, and woodchuck (nuisance species will vary from state to state and regionally within each state).
What methods are permitted? Harvest methods will depend on what is being hunted. Cross bow, snares, leg hold traps, body grip traps, and various firearms are standard among hunters. Firearms and traps near bridle trails can create concerns on public hunting land especially where safety zones have not been established. Without safety zones in place, it is legal to set traps or discharge a firearm, near trails or on trails. Trapping safety zones in New York for example, specify that traps cannot be set within one hundred feet of any trail. Montana has rigid laws regarding trap and snare placement too. Several years ago, while researching an issue on Michigan trails, I realized that their laws permitted traps to be set on trails, which is obviously a huge concern for trail riders, dog walkers and hikers. What safety zone restrictions have been enacted in your state?
Be safe – be visible. Blaze orange coordinates well with every color of horse, from light dappled grey to the deep red tones of a mahogany bay. More importantly though, being visible from afar helps identify horse and rider amidst the early fall color spectrum and the late season dreary browns that dominate the landscape. Coordinating hunter orange or hi-visibility yellow into riding attire and tack will drastically reduce the risk of being mistaken for big game while hacking about on public or private land during hunting season.
Be seen, not heard - sometimes it is better to be seen and not heard, especially while riding through areas where quietness is essential for hunters to dial in on and attract prey. Rider’s voices during conversation project farther than foot traveler's voices. This is because riders sit
higher up, and because there is more distance between the conversationalists. Group riders should do their best to keep conversation to a minimum, especially single file riders talking to people behind them. Jingle bells are a popular audible accessory used by some trail riders to notify hunters and wildlife of their presence. If I had to choose between highly visible gear and an audible jingle bell, I would choose high visibility as a mindful way of not interfering with hunter opportunities.
What do hunters have to say? M. Stonecheck and A. Skates friends and long-time crossbow devotees have hunted deer and turkey on both private and public land, and on land where bridle trails exist. Both confirmed that horse riders at a leisurely walking pace typically do not disturb hunters, as long as they keep moving and keep conversation to a minimum, since voices travel far. Hunters prefer to be in the field or woods from sunrise to about an hour afterward then later in the day from an hour or so before sunset – these are times when deer and other game are most active during designated hunting hours. Easy to remember… that is chore time for many horse owners.
Pay attention to your horse. A horse may or may not detect a camouflaged hunter hunched closely to the ground or in a tree stand. If they do, it might not be a serene event if the ominous figure suddenly begins moving. If your horse begins hyper focusing on a certain direction with fixed ears, investigatory nostril blowing and snorting there might be a hunter or game nearby. For safety’s sake, it is best when hunters verbalize before and during moving in the presence of horses.
Safe encounters - during harvest season riders are responsible for researching before heading out, not only to confirm what, where, when and how relating to hunting, but also to confirm if the bridle trails are open. Unfortunately, some bridle trails are closed during all or part of hunting season. To learn more about hunting policies at your intended destination, a web search is the quickest way to learn about current laws and guidelines. This should be done every year since rules often change. The best results will be found by using the key words “hunting regulations in _______” (add the state, park, or natural area).
Horseback riding in natural areas, on designated trails offers one-of-a-kind, low-impact experiences. Horses are native to North America and as prey animals, they blend well into natural ecosystems without disturbing flora and fauna - even while carrying a rider.
Original edited, edition published in Horse Trails of American November 2024 "Trail Journal."
Additional information from non-affiliate links:
National Park Hunting Information:
Bureau of Land Management Hunting Information:
United States Fish and Wildlife Hunting Information: https://www.fws.gov/initiative/hunting/hunting-us-fish-and-wildlife-service-lands-and-waters
U.S. Forest Service Hunting Information:
State Hunting Information all in one place:
GPS applications for mobile devices (these are not free apps)